History and geography
Malbec's been declining in popularity for the last 40
years. One of the reasons is the name. It's known
under so many different names that Malbec in
France means very little. The Oxford Companion to
Wine lists some 400 synonyms for Malbec so it
must have been pretty popular at one stage. But now
it's known as a minor blending variety.
Another nail in the coffin for French Malbec came
with the disastrous frosts in 1956. This provided an
ideal excuse to re-plant with more fashionable and
But it's not all bad. Malbec is the dominant red
varietal in the Cahors area. The Appellation Controlée
regulations for Cahors require a minimum
content of 70% Malbec in wines produced from the
The only historical reference to the name Malbec
shows it coming from the surname of a Hungarian
peasant who first spread the variety throughout
France and then further afield.
In 1868 Professor Pouet introduced Malbec, Cabernet
Sauvignon and Merlot cuttings from Bordeaux to
Argentina. In the warm and dry South American climate
it flourished and was soon thriving throughout
Argentina and Chile.
Ironically, Argentina's 'vine pull' program in the
1980's left only 10,000 acres of Malbec in the
ground. That's now back up to around 25,000 acres
producing wonderful rich, complex, inky wines with
smooth tannins and ripeness Europe can only dream
about. Contrast these 25,000 acres with the approximately
150,000 acres of Malbec in the ground prior
to the 'vine pull' and you can better appreciate this
Chile seems to have escaped this madness and it's
now Chile's third most widely planted variety. By
contrast Australia had just 1,220 acres of Malbec in
the ground in 2002 and that area has been shrinking
over the years.
The first mention of Malbec in Australia comes
from 1901 where Mr Himmelhoch establishes his
'Grodno' vineyard at Liverpool near Sydney planted
to Shiraz and Malbec.
Like most popular grapes, Malbec goes under many
different names but there a few more commonly
used than others. In the Bordeaux it's known as
Côt or Pressac, in the French Alsace and Cahors
regions it's called Auxerrois, Argentina gives it
the name of Fer, Portugal refers to it as Tinta
Amarela and here in Australia we sometimes call
it Portugal Malbec.
Malbec grows just about anywhere. You can find
it in France, Chile, Brazil, Italy, Madeira, Portugal,
Spain, USA, Australia and Argentina, where it's
the most widely planted grape variety.
It's a thin-skinned grape with large berries, needing
lots of sunlight and heat to reach full maturity.
It thrives in well-irrigated and well-drained soils
but produces uneven crops in less than ideal years
and is susceptible to rot in cool and wet conditions.
Malbec is also very sensitive to frost.
Three distinct 'lobes' characterise the Malbec
leaves, the central lobe being the longest. Malbec
berries are large, dark and round with bunches being
large and loose.
Malbec creates an intense, inky red wine often
used in blends.
Blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon,
Malbec makes the Bordeaux blend known as
claret. A common blend from the Loire Valley
comprises Malbec blended with Gamay and Cabernet
Franc. Another common blend sees Tannat
The Argentinean love of potent reds has made
Malbec a national speciality. The new world Malbecs
ripen to give rich and smooth tannins.
The main aromas from a rich Malbec include:
cherry, plum, raisins, coffee, chocolate, leather and
raspberry. The key flavours a nice Malbec exhibits
include: plum, cherry, chocolate, dried fruits, and
balsamic. Ageing in oak releases the vanilla aromas
* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans at The Gurdies Winery